The road to San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala is a descent into a valley along an asphalt road riddled with potholes that could easily swallow your tire. In the chilly pre-dawn of a February day, six of us — a videographer, human rights activists, a photographer, an interpreter and a driver — make our way in the dark. We share the road with large and old slatted trucks carrying cattle, rickety brightly-painted school buses packed with sleeping passengers, women in traje, their indigenous dress, walking to town carrying babies across their chests. It’s cold and the stars outline the silhouette of the mountains that separate Guatemala from Mexico just an hour and a half to the west. On our right we start to see the first rays of the sun as we climb into the Sierra of the Cuchumatanes mountains, high above the clouds.
We’re moving into a conflict-torn area where communities, like San Miguel Ixtahuacán and neighbouring Sipacapa, have been drastically changed by the arrival of mining companies like Montana Exploradora, a Guatemalan subsidiary of the Canadian-owned mining company Goldcorp, which began the exploitation of the Marlin Mine in 2004. We’re not sure what to expect, but our role is clear: Record first-hand testimonies from women who say their lives have been changed dramatically by the mining in the area. We’re here as part of a larger fact-finding mission sent to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala in January by the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI). Based in Ottawa, the organization was founded by six female recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, and is led by Laureate Jody Williams, winner of the 1997 prize for her anti-land mine work. The organization sends delegations of prominent citizens — lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, artists — into high-conflict areas around the world to investigate the plight of women and human rights defenders, defensoras, including those who are targeted as women — raped, assaulted, denied the power to protect their land, livelihood, health and families. We’ve heard some terrible stories during the past 10 days travelling through these countries.
Entering the valley, San Miguel Ixtahuacán hangs on our right past the once thick pine forests. We are met by a woman defensora wearing the traditional elaborately-woven Maya blouse, huipil, and matching wrap-around skirt of the region, along with a nun and priest from the local Catholic Church, which has been a vocal opponent to mining activities in the area. They welcome us over breakfast, which we eat quickly after we learn a group of women is waiting for us. The nun, who is a native of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, leads us into the main street; we pair off and walk through this small quiet town where all the doors facing the street are open and people bend their head as a greeting as we pass. We are led into a bright meeting hall where indigenous women sit in a large circle facing us as the sound of marimba music fills the room. Between us on the floor is another circle made from carefully placed dried ears of corn pointing towards the centre where more corn forms spokes pointing in four directions. There are unlit candles and the silence of waiting. When we are all seated, they begin to sing a hymn:
“Was it you who sent the miners?
They violate the womb of Mother Earth.
They take the gold, destroy the hills.
A gram of blood is worth more than a thousand kilos of gold.”
We kneel with them for a Mayan blessing and prayer and then they tell us their stories, one after another.
“The mining company,” says Maria Elena, “is our worst wound; it has torn open our mother earth, who feeds us, and we feel her pain. We have no peace, our communities are being divided and destroyed.”
“We don’t want the water to disappear and the trees to dry up,” said Francisca Pastoran, in a desperate tone. “We want to be heard as women. We don’t want kidnappings, violence and hatred. Our ancestors left us an inheritance that was complete. What are we going to leave … slavery?”
They detail kidnappings, the violence against them and their families, the death of crops, children with strange rashes and sickness they say comes from water contaminated by the mining. They tell us how their ancient communities are now fracturing — some welcoming the mines as an economic alternative, others strongly opposed, saying the mines poison their land, make their people ill and that private mining security forces intimidate and threaten them. For many of the women, Spanish is their second language, while others speak only their indigenous Mam tongue, which is interpreted to us. None of the emotion is lost.
An entire book could be filled with their testimonies. We thank them and promise to take their stories into the world and not return empty-handed. We leave the meeting hall and descend farther into the valley, closer to the mine where the land becomes more barren and dusty. The tree line diminishes. As we wind down to the community of San José Nueva Esperanza , we catch a glimpse of the Marlin Mine and the bulldozers relentlessly uncovering layers of rock.
To get to the home of elderly Diodora Antonia Hernández Cinto, we must pass through sections of the mine that are heavily guarded by private security guards. The driver warns us that on previous journeys with other human rights groups, the mine staff has aggressively enforced its policy prohibiting photography and video on their property. But Hernández Cinto’s house, and the small plot of land where she plants her corn, raises her chickens and keeps her livestock, is now surrounded by the mine. Only a few feet from her house, a tall wire-mesh fence surrounds a basketball court — with a Montana Exploradora logo on its backboard.
Hernández Cinto has unsurprisingly been an outspoken critic of the mine. In July 2010, she was shot in the face by two assailants, who she believes were connected to the mine. She was in the hospital for three months and survived, but lost an eye in the assault. The Public Defender’s office came to investigate, but no arrests were made. Hernández Cinto also reports being attacked by someone with a machete, being threatened numerous times and hearing gunshots near her house. But she refuses to sell her land because she, her children and grandchildren have nowhere else to go.
“I am thinking, why doesn’t the company leave me alone? I am peaceful here. We have been peaceful here for a long time, but not anymore,” said Hernández Cinto amid tears. “They don’t want to see us here.”
Yet, despite her desire to stay on her land, the pressure to sell continues.
In the nearby community of Ágel, Crisanta Hernandez has prepared lunch and brought together a small group of women. Hernandez is one of several local women who say the mine has filed arrest warrants against them because of their activism against the mine’s practices. She tells us she was charged with destruction of private property because she participated in a protest that led to the burning of some mining vehicles. As she speaks, we stand in the back room of her house, a room that was once the bedroom for her children, where a huge crack runs down the centre of the room that is now barely attached to the rest of the house.
She unwinds her fussy toddler from the shawl around her back and explains that before the mine came to the area, the houses never had cracks. She believes they are caused by the mine machinery carving huge swathes in the land nearby, and the rumbling explosions they hear. Now, many houses have cracks that let in the cold mountain winds and pests. We enter three houses with large cracks and hear similar stories. When they confronted the company with these problems, Hernandez said the mine refused to take responsibility.
Like the walls, the community is torn asunder by those who work for the company and support its work and those who say they are directly affected by mining practices. Hernandez says her own brother was beaten by a mob and burned alive because he supported opposition to the company. Hernandez and her mother witnessed this death and were warned that the same could happen to them if they continued to oppose the mine.
That evening we ate dinner with activists who were on a two-day retreat in San Marcos to hold the mining companies accountable for their behaviour. Women and men sat together and shared their stories. We type, photograph and record everything furiously, while the night presses on and tired children begin to cry. This work is what the Nobel Peace Prize winners have been doing since they launched the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006. Women with power bearing witness to those without.
Finally, we speak with Crisanta Pérez, who also has an arrest warrant hanging over her head for her anti-mining activism. She was harassed so often that she left her community for six months but upon her return was arrested again. She now lives under the continued threat of being arrested and taken away from her family and home. When asked why she would risk her life and getting arrested again, a shy smile lights up her face.
“We need you to carry our voices to other places, to other countries so that someone hears us who can support us. We’re very affected by this and we hope through you that people can hear our stories and help us.”
Was it You, who sent the miners?
(Hymn from San Miguel Ixtahuacan)
They violate the womb of Mother Earth.
They take the gold, destroy the hills.
A gram of blood is worth more than a thousand kilos of gold.
What is happening to my people?
And you, my God, where are you hiding?
We are paralyzed by fear.
My people are sold out and they don’t realize it.
Water is becoming scarce, it is the color of hell.
Polluted air rises to the sky.
We seek miracles – in the final hour,
Seeking to heal the sick and the mortal damage.
Poor people are easy to buy off.
Gifts silence suspicions and doubts.
The salaries are taken to the bars in town,
Leaving behind dark homes and my people divided.
You created a garden – not a desert.
We want progress with respect for the environment.
The hunger for gold eats more and more earth.
And you, my God, must ask:
What are my people doing?